Surfing the Spectacle

Send in the Clowns


First the artist takes hair from a kitten.

Enough to make a paintbrush. Then he grinds paint pigment, he boils glue, he makes paper.

Then he paints. His work is small, a miniature, but filled with exquisite brush strokes and design and color and feeling. He is an artist in the court of one of the great Mughal emperors and he paints scenes pleasing to his royal patron.


Centuries later, we have Saira Wasim.

A woman. A Pakistani. An artist with no patron but her heart and her mind. She uses the old techniques of Mughal miniature to show us the new face of global politics and domination.

It is often the face of a buffoon.


Wasim’s work is grounded in her native Pakistan. A nuclear state where less than half of its population can read or write. A nation run by a military dictatorship and Mullahs spouting ideologies of repression. And now, a crucial ally of Uncle Sam.

She looks closely at those wielding power and depicts their world as a grand stage, a circus with clowns and missiles. In her paintings, the men who play the roles of gloried leaders frequently resemble nothing more than little boys who strike poses as the world falls beneath them.


Her tableaus are rich and dreamy and the tone can be comic. But there’s no mistaking that the ongoing spectacle is deadly. The cupids frequently hover like angels of death. Stars can take on the aura of cluster bombs.

Wasim knows the danger. As a woman, an artist, and as a member of a persecuted Muslim sect, the Ahmadi, Wasim had to leave her country in order to safely make this kind of work.


Princes and gods were traditionally portrayed through the Mughal miniature. So Wasim’s use of the technique endows her subjects with a disturbing kind of historical grandeur. These are the powerful ones, the paintings remind us, these are the ones that seek to command and control and consume the world.

These fools.

[Saira Wasim’s work has much more scope than I can reference here. Check out her website for a gallery of her works.]

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